All Defensive Positions In Football Explained

Football is an immensely popular sport in the United States, but if you haven’t played it before, it can be confusing to follow. I’ve been around the game for years, so sometimes I forget that. But I’ve got you covered.

Today I want to talk Defense and answer two critical questions. What are the 11 football defensive positions? And what do they do? Rest assured, you’ve come to the right place because all defensive positions are explained below.

What Is The Defense?

In a football game, there are two teams, and at varying times during the game, they will each have the opportunity to be on Offense (possess the ball with the intention of scoring) and Defense (prevent the Offense from scoring). But what exactly does the Defense do, and how do they do it?

What Is The Purpose Of The Defense?

The purpose of the Defense is to do whatever it can to prevent the Offense from moving the football down the field and scoring points (touchdown or field goal). How do they do this? By running plays that are designed to counteract the offensive plays.

Every team has a Defensive Coordinator (DC), the coach on the sidelines or up in the coach’s box, who designs and makes play calls for each down. Essentially, the DC is engaged in a chess match on the football field with the Offensive Coordinator (OC) and Head Coach (HC) of the opposing football team.

The DC wants to make the right play call each time, so the Offense isn’t able to move the ball and has to punt and give the ball back to the Defense so they can become the Offense.

Even though, on paper, the play call the DC makes would appear to be the perfect neutralizer for the play call the OC makes, it won’t always be successful. Why? Well, because the defensive players on the field are the ones who have to execute that play call to perfection for it to work. And I’ve seen how difficult that can sometimes be!

Let’s talk more about those players.

What Are The 11 Football Defensive Positions?

Just like on Offense, there are 11 players on Defense. And the best way to think about these positions is to think of them as layers on the football field.

There are three layers (Defensive Line, Linebackers, and Defensive Secondary), and each layer has specific responsibilities. And those responsibilities can be and usually are different for each play.

If each layer executes its responsibilities perfectly on a play, then the Defense should be successful on that play. However, if any of the layers don’t do their job, or if even one player that makes up one of the layers doesn’t, then disaster can strike.

So not only is it important that the layers work together, but you want all of the players in each layer to function together. The saying, ‘You’re only as strong as your weakest link’ is never more accurate than on the football field – particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Let’s learn more about those links.

Defensive Line

The first layer of Defense is the Defensive Line. These players are the front-line soldiers battling in the trenches, and executing their objectives is crucial.

Collectively, they are focused on not letting the Offensive Line complete their blocks, stopping the Running Back from making progress in a running play, and putting pressure on and/or sacking the Quarterback in the event of a passing play.

There are 3 types of positions on the Defensive Line. The actual number of each of these players could vary from team to team or play to play depending on what kind of formation is being run (i.e., 4-3 or 3-4 are the most common, with the first number referring to the number of Defensive Linemen and the second number referring to the number of Linebackers).

What are each of those positions responsible for? Let’s find out.

Nose Tackle

The Nose Tackle (NT), also called Nose Guard (NG), is the anchor of the Defensive Line. He is typically the heaviest player on Defense and generally lines up right over the Center or maybe slightly shifted to one of the Center’s shoulders. I want as wide a body as possible in this spot!

Teams typically will have at most one Nose Tackle on the field at any time, and maybe not depending on the formation being run. His main goal is to clog things up right in the middle of the line and not give up any space.

You’ll often hear him referred to as a run-stuffer or run stopper because he wants to make it difficult for the Offense to run the ball between the Center and Guard. The Nose Tackle generally doesn’t make much of an impact in the passing game.

Defensive Tackle

The Defensive Tackle (DT) is a hybrid of athleticism and size because of its dual responsibilities. Teams using DTs generally have two on the field at a time.

They are expected to wreak havoc with the Offensive Line on running plays by physically clogging up the gaps between the Center, Guards, and Tackles to prevent a running back from getting through.

On passing plays, they need to be athletic enough to push or finesse their way through or past Offensive Linemen to put pressure on the Quarterback and/or get a sack.

Defensive End

The Defensive End (DE) must have the rare combination of size and speed to succeed. Some of your best athletes and most dominant players on Defense play this position.

Teams using DEs generally have two on the field at a time. These players must be big because they constantly battle with the most prominent players on Offense – Tackles and Tight Ends.

On running plays, they are responsible for diagnosing where the running back is headed to make the tackle or, more importantly, contain the outside of the line.

This means making sure no ball carrier gets between them and the sideline because that is where the most significant running gains typically happen. They want to force the runner back inside where other Defensive Lineman, or other layers of the Defense, are available to make the tackle.

In passing situations, they need the savvy and speed to get around or through Tackles and Tight Ends to get to the Quarterback, ideally for a sack.

As of 2022, the 2 NFL players with the most sacks in league history played Defensive End, so it is a vital position on Defense, particularly in the passing game. I can’t emphasize that enough!

But what about the next layer?

Linebackers

Layer #2 is the Linebackers (LBs). These guys are usually not as big as Defensive Lineman because speed starts to become more critical, especially for an Outside Linebacker.

Linebackers need to be versatile because they will be asked to be run stoppers, pass rushers, and get involved in pass coverage. So they need the optimal combination of size and speed to succeed.

They also need a high football IQ because they are generally responsible for calling out adjustments once they see the Offense lineup.

And depending on what formation a Defense uses, you may hear other names: Middle Linebacker (MLB), Strong Side Linebacker, and/or Weak Side Linebacker, which refers to what side of the field they line up on.

But, the easiest way to make a distinction is Inside Linebacker and Outside Linebacker.

Inside Linebacker

An Inside Linebacker (ILB) is named as such because they line up on the inside of the formation, behind the Nose Tackle or Defensive Tackles. Their primary territory is the middle of the field on any given play.

They tend to be more heavily involved in run support if the Running Back gets through the first layer of Defense, but they can also be asked to help with pass coverage in the middle of the field or possibly rush the Quarterback if a blitz is called as well.

Depending on the formation, teams will use one or two Inside Linebackers.

Outside Linebacker

After reading the last section, you can probably guess why an Outside Linebacker (OLB) is given the name it has – that’s right, because they line up on the outside of the formation, closer to the Defensive Ends.

Sometimes they may even start on the line of scrimmage outside of the Defensive End. But their primary territory will be from the edge of the middle of the field to the sideline.

They need to be very athletic because they are asked to cover a wide range of the field.

They need to be able to move laterally to make a tackle on a Running Back that breaks to the outside or maybe to cover a pass-catcher coming across the middle of the field or going downfield.

They also need to move upfield and downfield to either rush the Quarterback when a blitz is called or to cover a Wide Receiver or Tight End in certain coverages.

Most teams utilize two Outside Linebackers, which could decrease in certain pass coverage formations.

But what happens if a Running Back or Wide Receiver gets past the first two layers of Defense? Then layer #3 comes into play.

Defensive Secondary

Now we come to the last layer of Defense. These guys are generally the smallest players on Defense because their focus is speed.

They will be asked to be physical at times because, as the 3rd layer of Defense, they may have to tackle ball carriers who have made it past the first two layers. Or they may have to tussle a bit with Tight Ends and Wide Receivers in pass coverage while trying to defend the ball.

But their primary focus will be to run with and cover the pass catchers from the Offense and try to prevent them from catching the ball in man-to-man or zone coverages.

Cornerback and Safety are the primary names used for the Defensive Secondary. Still, you might also hear terms like Nickelback and Dimeback, which refer to additional Cornerbacks and Safeties used in various pass coverages.

Cornerback

A Cornerback (CB) is designed for pass coverage, their primary responsibility. They typically line up on or close to the line of scrimmage from the outside middle of the field to the sideline, depending on where the Offense’s pass catchers are lined up.

They spend a lot of time running with Wide Receivers and ensuring whoever they are covering doesn’t catch the ball.

They also need to make tackles in run support, and if their pass catcher catches the ball, that is not necessarily their forte.

Occasionally they will be asked to blitz the Quarterback to try and disrupt a pass play or get a sack. Generally, teams use 2 Cornerbacks, but that can increase in certain pass coverages.

Safety

A Safety (S) is the true last line of Defense. Their primary responsibility is to make sure nothing gets behind them – runners or pass catchers.

They need to have that size/speed combination mentioned earlier because they will be asked to make touchdown-saving tackles on Running Backs and cover Wide Receivers and Tight Ends on pass plays.

They will also be asked to blitz occasionally to create havoc with the Quarterback and/or get a sack. I also want a guy who can see the field clearly and diagnose plays before they happen!

Most teams have 2 Safeties on the field (Free Safety (FS) and Strong Safety (SS), determined by which side of the field they line up on), but that number can increase in certain pass coverages.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is A Sack In Football?

A sack occurs when a defensive player tackles the quarterback for a loss of yards on a play before the quarterback can get rid of the ball.

What Is An Interception In Football?

An interception occurs when a defensive player catches a pass intended for an offensive player.

What Is A Fumble In Football?

A fumble occurs when an offensive player loses possession of the football, and then a defensive player recovers the ball and gains control of it.

How Does A Defensive Player Score A Safety?

A defensive player scores a safety when that player tackles an offensive player who has possession of the football in the offensive player’s end zone or forces the offensive player out of bounds in their end zone. The result of the play is that the defensive team gets 2 points and possession of the football for the next series of plays.

Can A Defensive Player Score Points In Football?

Yes, a defensive player can score points by intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown, recovering a fumble either in the end zone or in the field of play and running into the end zone, or scoring a safety.

4th & 10

Now that you know the defensive football positions, I hope you better understand what skills are required for each of them and how to beat them if you’re on the other side of the team.

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Brad Smith
Brad Smith
Brad Smith has been coaching high school Football for 6 years in Florida. He and his wife have 3 beautiful children who he hopes will become the first Jaguars to win a Superbowl. Other than Football, Brad loves American litterature, parenting, gardening, and home remodeling.